Five steps to fixing the Blackhawks on the ice

NHL News

The Chicago Blackhawks‘ fall from grace has been one of the steepest in NHL history.

The team’s calamitous mishandling of former player Kyle Beach’s claims that he was sexually assaulted by former video coach Brad Aldrich in 2010 has led to sweeping changes. General manager Stan Bowman and senior director of hockey operations Al MacIsaac both resigned after an investigation into the matter was released. The Blackhawks were fined $2 million by the NHL.

The tarnish on the team’s Stanley Cup win — from which Aldrich’s name was removed — was so severe that it resulted in the Blackhawks postponing the number retirement for Marian Hossa due to poor timing. “As an organization, we extend our profound apologies to the individuals who suffered from these experiences. We must — and will — do better,” the Blackhawks said in a statement.

Off the ice, there’s a lot of work to do. There’s also work to be done on the ice, where that fall from grace has been ongoing for the past five years.

The team that won three Stanley Cups in the span of six seasons is now just a memory. The last playoff series the Blackhawks won was the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. They’ve failed to appear in the first round of the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. Coach Jeremy Colliton was fired after 2-9-2 start, as Bowman’s offseason coups — goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Seth Jones — were consumed by their mediocrity out of the starting gate.

Is this season already lost? Despite a .231 points percentage after 13 games, interim GM Kyle Davidson thinks there’s still a chance at success — or at least learning the best path toward it for next season.

“You find out if you’re a [playoff] team in April. Let’s be totally honest, the math is not in our favor right now to get to that point,” Davidson said after Colliton was fired. “But no season is ever lost, because you’re always going to be able to learn something, you’re always going to be able to continue your evaluation process.”

There are organizational decisions that take precedence over the hockey product, from ensuring the safety of the players to repairing the reputation of the brand locally and globally. But figuring out the next steps to make the Blackhawks a competitive team is a facet of those decisions.

Here are five steps to fixing the Blackhawks on the ice:

Get creative in the front office

The popular belief around the NHL is that the Blackhawks are eventually going to hire a president of hockey operations and a general manager, after Bowman held down both titles for the past decade. That’s how much work there is to do.

The president of hockey operations needs to be someone capable of two primary tasks: Changing the culture within the organization and repairing relationships that have been strained or broken by the team’s handling of Beach’s allegations. The former will require partnership with individuals, like team president Danny Wirtz and president of business operations Jaime Faulkner; the latter will require clear communication about those changes — and more than a little salesmanship — to players, agents and those with a vested interest in this global hockey brand.

There have been some names prominently mentioned for the president role. Blackhawks fan favorite Eddie Olczyk, who works with Turner Sports, has been mentioned, although there has been talk around the league that his current relationship with the Blackhawks doesn’t have the solid footing that many assume it does.

Kevin Weekes — an analyst and insider for ESPN — has been waiting for this kind of opportunity, after having interviewed with several teams over the past few seasons. Former Canucks president of hockey operations Mike Gillis has worked to expand his understanding on how franchises in other sports operate since losing his NHL gig, and has expressed a willingness to hear a pitch from the Blackhawks.

Former Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford is very interested in getting back into the league, although one wonders if the Blackhawks would want him to work as a general manager for a short time along with the presidency, as was the initial plan for Rutherford in Pittsburgh.

One name that could merit some consideration: Hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero, a former U.S. national team player and co-founder of Sports Innovation Lab. She was on the radar for the Florida Panthers for a front-office job and would be an intriguing hire for Chicago in an executive capacity.

The person hired for president of hockey operations will inform the hiring of the general manager, but there are also some clear options there. Former New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton makes a lot of sense, especially if the Blackhawks are looking to enter a rebuild or retool period. Former Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Michael Futa and current Seattle Kraken assistant GM Norm Maciver, who served under Bowman in Chicago, could be options.

But one NHL source told ESPN that they heard Wirtz wants to “go young” with the general manager position. That would seem to favor interim GM Kyle Davidson, in his early 30s, who famously went from minor-league intern to Bowman’s top lieutenant in the span of a decade. It could also favor 44-year-old Mark Eaton, the team’s head of player development, and potentially Meghan Hunter, 40, the team’s director of hockey administration.

One wild card for either job: Patrick Roy, 56, current GM and coach of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and former head coach and vice president of hockey operations for the Colorado Avalanche. Then again, he could be a wild card for the next head coach, too.

Selecting the right coach

Colliton’s firing was overdue. The moves Bowman made in the offseason with Jones and Fleury felt like trying to patch a hole in a dam before the flood happens: The coach’s defensive scheme had been proven to be ineffective at the NHL level. He had to go, and his fate was sealed by the lousy start.

Interim head coach Derek King could have the helm for the rest of the season win or lose. If that’s the case, then it’ll be on the next official general manager to find the next head coach.

After Colliton’s lack of success, the Blackhawks are expected to go with a head coach with previous NHL experience. Some candidates could assist in that effort of “culture change,” as current NHL broadcast analysts John Tortorella (ESPN) and Rick Tocchet (Turner) have earned their reputations as no-nonsense bench bosses. Former Anaheim and Washington coach Bruce Boudreau would also change the tone and tenor of the team.

One candidate that makes a lot of sense is Jim Montgomery, the former Dallas Stars coach who is now on Craig Berube‘s staff in St. Louis. He has sought treatment for the alcoholism that cost him his job in Dallas, where the foundation of his defensive system is still paying dividends. A comeback story for both a coach and an organization could be a compelling one.

If nothing else, the Blackhawks need a stabilizing force as their head coach, considering how much chaos is already surrounding the team — and it could get worse.

Have the conversation with Toews, Kane

The Blackhawks attempted to pry open their window as contenders in the offseason with Jones and Fleury. It hasn’t worked.

Fleury is a one-and-done Blackhawk, as an unrestricted free agent next offseason. In summer 2023, both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are scheduled to hit the market, too.

They have identical $10.5 million annual cap hits and full no-movement clauses. They’re the last remaining links to the team’s dynastic years, after the sweeping changes in the executive suites. Kane turns 33 on Nov. 19, while Toews turns 34 next April.

They’re franchise icons and among the most popular players in the team’s history, the type of players who retire having played for one team. But perhaps they shouldn’t.

“When you have many players retire wearing only your uniform, then you’re in trouble,” one former NHL general manager told ESPN this week. “You’re going to have to dangle Toews and Kane out there as the key to winning the Stanley Cup to somebody so that you can reap what you should reap, having paid them so much money through the years and having won your own three Stanley Cups. Give somebody else a chance to get a Cup, but they have to pay.”

Toews and Kane hold all the cards here, with full trade protection this season and next. But the executive believes that if the Blackhawks need to go back to the drawing board, the duo is done.

“You have to get your new Toews and your new Kane. Because in two years, if you’re still trying to build around those guys, guess what? They’re going to leave for free because they’re not going to stay with a rebuilding team at that age. This is simply the way of the NHL now,” he said.

It’s a difficult conversation. Maybe not a popular call to make, given their place in franchise history — although one wonders how tethered the fans are to that nostalgia now.

But their answers to “what is your future?” are essential.

“Those answers will give you a lot of guidance on where you go from there,” said one source.

Keep Kubalik; try to trade almost everyone else

There are other roster questions that need to be answered beyond Toews and Kane. Those questions start with Dominik Kubalik.

Since 2019-20, the 26-year-old winger has 50 goals in 137 games, third on the team in that span behind Alex DeBrincat (57) and Kane (53). He makes $3.7 million annually against the salary cap and is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent after the season. There’s likely a temptation to move him for future assets, but the Blackhawks should fight that temptation. Kubalik should be part of the solution here, as is DeBrincat and a few others.

But there are other players to move. Center Dylan Strome is a pending arbitration-eligible restricted free agent with value. Defenseman Calvin de Haan ($4.55 million AAV) is a pending unrestricted free agent. So is Fleury, and if there’s a contender to which he’s willing or able to be traded, one assumes the Blackhawks will be more than accommodating. (Can we finally get that Penguins reunion?)

Jones is an interesting one. He has had a resurgent season offensively, with 11 assists in 13 games, but continues to be inconsistent in the defensive end.

He’s still a year away from the start of his eight-year, $76 million contract with the Blackhawks; the last year of his current deal features a $5.4 million cap hit and just a 10-team, no-trade clause. There’s zero chance the Blackhawks recoup what they traded to Columbus for Jones: two first-rounders (one that already produced Cole Sillinger for the Jackets), defenseman Adam Boqvist and another pick. But if the Blackhawks are entering a rebuild, could finding a taker for Jones hasten it? Or is he a pillar to build around, as Bowman clearly saw in him when making this deal?

Finally, change the organizational view on prospects

The Jones trade set Chicago’s pipeline back, losing its first-rounder in 2021, and its first-rounder in either 2022 or 2023. If Chicago wins one of the lotteries for the first or second overall pick next summer, it keeps the pick and Columbus gets the 2023 pick; otherwise, it’s two straight years without a high first-rounder.

Bowman did not leave the cupboard stacked with top prospects. The Blackhawks clearly like 20-year-old center Kirby Dach. They like 19-year-old forward Lukas Reichel even more. Beyond that, it’s a solid but unspectacular pipeline.

Since the 2016 class, the Blackhawks have had four draft picks play 80 or more games in the NHL. DeBrincat and Dach are two of them; the other two, Boqvist and Henri Jokiharju, are no longer with the franchise.

Corey Pronman of The Athletic dropped Chicago from No. 14 to No. 23 in his prospect pipeline rankings this season. J.D. Burke of Elite Prospects painted a bleaker picture, ranking them No. 27.

Both pundits were critical of the type of prospects Bowman’s front office had amassed. Burke summed it up best: “They’ve invested a great deal of mid-range draft capital on low-upside bets in the pursuit of size and gumption, and that’s dragged down the quality of their pool, too. This system is among the deeper ones in the NHL, but it lacks credible star power.”

That mindset has to change.

But then, so much has to change within the Blackhawks organization. For all the possibilities on how to improve the on-ice product, the biggest decision will be made by ownership, and what the Wirtz family wants.

Do the Blackhawks reload again? Retool around their veteran standard-bearers? Or move forward with the kind of rebuild that, once upon a time, netted them Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and, eventually, a cap-era dynasty?

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